The results of the September 25 Kurdistan independence referendum were officially announced, but that did little to calm the war of words between Baghdad and Irbil. The politicians in the Iraqi capital were pushing for more retaliation against the region, while the Kurds were refusing to listen. At the end of the day, there was a small fig leaf offered that could lead to something productive happening instead of the continued heated rhetoric.
The Kurdish Election Commission revealed the final count for the referendum. 72% of registered voters took part with roughly 2.9 million voting yes, and 224,000 posting no. The results were a given as Kurds have been talking about independence for years now. Pulling off the election, especially in the ad hoc way it was put together was still a historic event.
The problem for the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) is the next step. President Massoud Barzani has called for talks with the central government. Prime Minister Haidar Abadi responded with his own set of demands that no Kurdish politician would consent to. Abadi called on the KRG to release all the details of where its oil profits go to, accusing KRG politicians of putting money into their personal accounts, said that petroleum resources had to be under the control of Baghdad, and that the results of the referendum had to be annulled. Those were the sticks. The carrots were that the central government would share oil profits with Kurdistan via the budget, and that the region would get a share of all grants and loans given to Iraq. Many of these demands have been made before. While the Kurds have been willing to cooperate over oil exports, they have asserted their right to manage their natural resources since the 2003 invasion. President Barzani is also not going to annul the referendum results, especially because they were non-binding to begin with. Abadi on the other hand, was attempting to appease those in Baghdad calling to punish the Kurds, while sticking to a set of basic rights the central government has claimed have over the KRG previously.
Even then the premier was being pushed hard to take stronger action by Arab politicians and parties. Abadi gave the KRG three days to hand over control of its airports and border crossings with Turkey, Syria and Iran. The Iraqi Civil Aviation Authority sent notices to airlines that international flights to Irbil and Sulaimaniya were suspended. Some companies said they would comply, while others would not. A parliamentarian (MP) from the Supreme Council’s Citizen Bloc called for the Speaker of Parliament Sailm al-Jabouri to remove all the Kurdish deputies that voted in the referendum. Another MP said that the second deputy speaker of parliament Aram Sheikh Mohammed should be dismissed for the same reason. Legislators also demanded Abadi take all measures to ensure the unity of Iraq including asserting control over the disputed territories, removing the governor of Kirkuk, asking countries to close their consulates in Kurdistan, and even arresting Kurdish officials who were responsible for the referendum. Finally, Kataibh Hezbollah compared President Barzani to Islamic State leader Baghdadi saying he would be dealt with the same way that the Islamic State was. During the run up and after the referendum, this is the type of rhetoric that has been coming out from both sides. Arab MPs are calling for all types of actions to assert control over Kurdistan so that it cannot break away. Almost all of this is just words as no one really wants a confrontation that might escalate into violence. The Kurds are a favorite target of many Arab parties however, so this will likely continue for the foreseeable future.
Kurdish officials have rejected all of Baghdad’s demands, but did offer one compromise. Kirkuk Governor Najmidin Karim would not allow government troops to be deployed to any disputed territories in the province. Likewise, the KRG stated it would not turn over control of its two international airports. On September 27 however, Kurdistan announced that it was willing to allow observers from the central government at its airports. This was the first concession the Kurds made. That was an important step even if it isn’t followed through with because it was a sign that they were willing to de-escalate from all the verbal attacks that have been going back and forth.
The referendum was a symbolic event that brought Kurdish independence to the fore. The hard work is ahead with negotiations with Baghdad over borders, the disputed areas, etc. The problem is that no one in the central government is in any mood to talk with the KRG. Instead, many want blood in the most cynical political sense as few if any of their demands will ever be implemented. The Kurds made a first step in the opposite direction with the offer over the airports. At the same time, they have kept up their own attacks upon Baghdad usually comparing it to the former Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein. Elections are due in Iraq in 2018 so this heated environment may continue for quite some time.
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